Apple iPhone 4S review

27 Oct 2011

The fastest smartphone bar none, but its chief selling point – Siri – is a work in progress, making the iPhone 4S an expensive upgrade

Price when reviewed 
499
Buy it now for 
5

After four years and five different handsets, a predictable pattern has emerged with Apple’s iPhone. With pre-launch rumours focusing on an iPhone 5, Apple surprised everyone with a handset containing no great surprises. Just as the iPhone 3GS was a modest improvement on the iPhone 3G, we now have the 4S refining the iPhone 4 formula. Tick follows tock, follows tick, follows tock…

But while you might struggle to notice any difference in appearance, is there anything lurking beneath that glossy black exterior that makes the 4S more than a stopgap for the iPhone 5? Especially given that owners of iPhone 3GS and 4 handsets can also upgrade to iOS 5?

Revamped hardware

Only the most eagle-eyed observer could tell the difference between an iPhone 4S and its predecessor. The silence button has been shifted down a few millimetres – potentially making it tricky to reuse an iPhone 4 case – and the new antenna layout sees a couple of black lines around the perimeter repositioned, but this is to all intents and purposes an identical design.

Apple iPhone 4S

On the inside, however, Apple has made a few significant improvements. In comes the same dual-core A5 processor that powers the iPad 2, delivering tablet-like performance in the confines of a 3.5in smartphone. The full BBC homepage loaded in only 2.5 seconds – as fast as an iPad 2 running iOS 5, and a second and a half faster than the A-Listed Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone. The 4S ripped through the SunSpider benchmark in 2.2 seconds – 0.4 seconds slower than our iPad 2, but a third quicker than the Galaxy S II. This is the fastest smartphone we’ve ever seen, and by some distance.

That processing power isn’t only apparent in synthetic benchmarks: demanding 3D games such as FIFA 2012 are flawlessly smooth, even if the back of the phone does get a little toasty when the processor is pushed; multitasking doesn’t trouble the processor – we had the TomTom satnav, the music player and iOS notifications running simultaneously without a hint of slowdown; and there’s none of the occasional juddering witnessed on previous-generation hardware upgraded to iOS 5.

Speaking to Siri

That dual-core A5 processor also (according to Apple, at least) gives rise to the iPhone 4S’s only unique feature: Siri. Although limited voice controls were available in earlier iPhone models, Siri raises the AI bar, allowing users to bark natural language commands into their handset and have the phone speak back or display the requested information on screen. Although Siri offloads the voice recognition duties to the server – requiring an active data connection before it will even attempt to decipher what you’re saying – Apple claims that only the dual-core processor is capable of the necessary data crunching. Although given that apps such as Dragon Dictation have transcribed the spoken word at a similar speed to Siri on earlier iPhones, we can’t help but wonder if this a smokescreen designed purely to differentiate the 4S from its predecessors.

Siri is clever, but not nearly as clever as it might be, and clearly a work in progress. It works best when asked to perform set tasks: “do I have any appointments today?” will send Siri scouring through your calendar, displaying any meetings in the diary; “wake me up at seven,” will set an alarm call for the morning; “tell Jonathan Bray I’ll be in at ten” will send a text message to said reviews editor (provided he’s in your phone contacts) with the necessary message.

Apple iPhone 4S - Siri

It starts to fall down when tasked with more bespoke jobs. Dictating emails or lengthy text messages is too hit and miss, with Siri making it so hard to correct poorly transcribed text that you simply revert to the keyboard. Telling Siri to “remember my laptop when I leave here” creates a reminder that’s meant to go off when the GPS sensor detects you’ve left the building, but it failed to do so on the two occasions we tested it. And potentially useful location-based commands such as “find the nearest Starbucks” or “show me a map of Brighton” only work in the US.

As it is, Siri also needs a decent chunk of time spent training it on who’s who in your phonebook, and for you to get used to the right way to say things for the best results, so it’s not going to replace touch control anytime soon. The one place it could potentially come into its own is in the car, especially as it can be activated with a Bluetooth headset – allowing drivers to have text messages read to them and compose simple replies without risking a fine (or indeed their lives) by reaching for the handset. It has potential, but in its current incarnation it’s not quite the killer feature Apple must have hoped it would be.

Details

Price ex VAT £416
Price inc VAT £499
Cheapest price on contract £129
Contract monthly charge £30.00
Contract period 24 months
Contract provider 3
Overall rating 5
Features & Design 5
Value for Money 3

Physical

Dimensions 59 x 9.3 x 115mm (WDH)
Weight 140g
Touchscreen yes
Primary keyboard On-screen

Core Specifications

RAM capacity 512MB
Camera megapixel rating 8.0mp
Front-facing camera? yes
Video capture? yes

Display

Screen size 3.5in
Resolution 640 x 960
Landscape mode? yes

Other wireless standards

Bluetooth support yes
Integrated GPS yes

Software

OS family Other

Price comparison powered by Reevoo

£264